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Review: American Buffalo, a triangle of tension

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American Buffalo,” beginning its run at Prescott Center for the Arts’ Stage Too theatre, is all about vernacular. And yes, there is plenty of “adult language,” as the production’s advance flyer responsibly cautions. But for once the prolific use of profanity is not gratuitous. Rather it is an indispensable part, perhaps even the very essence, of this exceptional character-driven play written by David Mamet.

Set entirely in Donny’s (Jonathan “JP” Perpich) junk shop in Chicago, the story begins just as Donny has employed young Bobby (Ryan William Musselman) to help out in the shop. Donny sees a decent kid in Bobby and seeks to give him a chance to make good. In the meantime, Donny decides he may have sold a customer a rare buffalo-head nickel for too lean a price, and stews over the possibility he may have been cheated by the customer.

Enter Donny’s acquaintance Teach (James A. Pyduck), whose unpredictable volatility injects a discomforting tension that never lets up throughout the play’s two acts. Pyduck imbues his character with a bossy, know-it-all officiousness that exposes the insecurity of a loser trying desperately to gain admiration and respect. He accents those efforts with cool dance-like moves and gestures indicative of a physical manifestation of the genre, if indeed the vernacular can be physical. In any case, I have seldom seen as effective a performance.

We recognize in Donny a level-headed compassion and generosity when it comes to Bobby, and even Teach. Yet, he schemes to “reacquire” the buffalo-head nickel he fears he may have let go for a song. So, where Teach is unquestionably the play’s most interesting and affecting character, Donny is its most complex.

Act II turns up the heat as Donny’s easy-going temperament turns to nerves and anger in a contest of wills with Teach. Both men insist on controlling the means by which the buffalo-head nickel will be stolen back from Donny’s erstwhile customer. Where Bobby had originally been in on the heist, Teach convinces Donny that Bobby is too inexperienced. The reality is that Teach is no better equipped than Bobby to successfully pull off the burglary. This sets in motion a palpable triangle of tension and hostility between the three men.

Musselman’s understated performance as Bobby could easily be overshadowed by the other two performances. But he gives his character a sympathetic and likable quality essential to the mix.

In the end, Bobby has lied and acquired another buffalo-head nickel to make up for having not kept tabs on the customer who purchased the original nickel, as he’d promised Donny he would.

A fourth character, Fletch, who never appears on stage, agrees to competently lead the heist but doesn’t show up. When Bobby reports on Fletch’s hospitalization, Teach thinks he’s lying, striking and injuring Bobby in a horrifying closing scene.

Paul Epoch’s masterful direction of Mamet’s compelling modern-day classic nails the language, mannerisms, and transparent ambitions of the play’s pitiable characters. Lowlifes all, they are nevertheless different than the hoodlums of today. In that sense, they are a dying breed for whom we can’t help feeling a twinge of nostalgia.

“American Buffalo” will appear May 11 through May 28 in Prescott Center for the Arts’ Stage Too theatre, in the alley off Cortez Street between Willis and Sheldon (behind Peregrine Book Co.) in downtown Prescott. Evening performances are on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; matinee performances are on Sundays at 2 p.m. Ticket prices for all performances, all ages, are $15. For more information visit pca-az.net or call 928-445-3286.